AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — James Owens was just a big, strong kid who loved playing ball.
The fact that he was Auburn's first black football player didn't mean all that much to him until his sophomore season, in 1970, when he trotted onto the field for the first time and saw his own enthusiastic cheering section.
"There were wooden bleachers and there were nothing but black people sitting there, and they were cheering as if I had done something great, scored a touchdown or something," said Owens, who played when freshmen weren't eligible. "They were calling my name. Something registered to me, that it's no longer about you but it's about all these that are believing and have hope. It changed me.
"I realized that this thing that I'm doing is not for me to get to the next level but for others to have an opportunity to get to where I was. Hopes and dreams not only of James Owens but of a nation of people. I'm honored."
He'll be honored, and applauded, again on Saturday. The former Auburn fullback will receive the first James Owens Courage Award at Auburn's home opener against Louisiana-Monroe.
The award established in August will be given annually to other current or former Auburn players who have persevered through adversity.
"When I heard it, I thought it was long overdue, was the first thing," former Tigers teammate Terry Henley said. "I had chills running up the back of my neck because I was so excited for him, and I was excited for Auburn. He is certainly a part of history."
Henley said he expects "every bit of 100 players will show up" for the presentation.
Owens' nephew, LaDarius, is a Tigers defensive end who takes pride in his uncle's strength.
"Growing up, you hear the stories of people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, people like that," LaDarius Owens said. "And it's not nationally recognized what he did, but people that were here or people that came after him know what happened. To know that he had to go through the same types of struggles they had to go through is inspiring, to know that someone with my blood went through that and was strong enough to stand and come out on top."
His mother's urging helped. Owens said he woke up every morning for his first three years wanting to quit, thinking: "I'm going home. It's not worth it."
And his mother would tell him to stay. God will pull you through, she'd assure.
"It was worth it," said Owens, who went to work at U.S. Steel in Birmingham before becoming an Auburn-area pastor 11 years ago. "It took me a lot of endurance to stay."